Trash is a migraine of cinematic refuse, so tethered by its utter lack of specificity regarding its chosen human rights crisis, that director Stephen Daldry, working from an exploitative script by Richard Curtis, opts for a full-on Slumdog Millionaire imitation, as if chiaroscuro setups, quick edits, flashes of graphic violence, and pop music suffice in adding another quality volume to the world-cinema canon. But Trash is only world cinema in the sense that its protagonists, three young boys living in Rio De Janeiro, aren’t white and, more importantly, have no autonomy of their own. The story isn’t about them finding it, but being placed within a violent colonialist fantasy, haphazardly constructed by filmmakers who seem merely drawn to the idea of staging corruption without actually interrogating it.
Near the film’s start, a young boy finds a billfold in a trash heap, where he works for pennies along with lot of other youngsters and are lorded over by sunglassed, assault-rifled baddies, whose roles are relegated to instilling fear simply from their presence. Before that, Angelo (Wagner Moura) has just ditched said billfold in an escape from Brazilian authorities; it contains secrets that could indict a corrupt politician vying to be the next mayor. “This can’t happen during my election!” the would-be mayor barks while boarding a helicopter, which is about the depth of his character’s convictions.
Curtis offers single bits of expository dialogue to allow what should be imperative characters to simply recede into the shadows, of which Trash has many, along with endless sickly greens and vomit-tinged yellows refracting and splitting characters’ faces. The visual choices are the film’s most egregious offence (that or the omnipresent, sanguine score by Antonio Pinto), because they offer nothing except a now-hackneyed understanding of hyper-realism, where poverty-stricken and crime-ridden cities are made into dangerous, neon-tinged playgrounds, fitted with a pop playlist; the film is so calibrated for crossover, commercial appeal that it might as well be advertising the soundtrack between chases and gunplay (“You’ve just heard ’Guerrilla’ by Maxine Ashley, available from Universal Music”).
When the kids aren’t being hunted and shot at, they’re in the loving arms of a Catholic priest, Juilliard (Martin Sheen), and a volunteer worker, Olivia (Rooney Mara), who exist only to mill around exchange false wisdoms. Juilliard pontificates at one point, “Don’t waste your life fighting battles that make you bitter or make you dead,” a hollow rejoinder to hearing of the boys’ plight and a tepid sentiment of white liberal heartache. That’s Trash’s most damning narrative flaw: It’s unable to nuance an understanding of choice and political strife, instead insisting that no matter the circumstance, it can all be encapsulated by a universalizing of experience, where something like a shared moment of humor between people of differing ethnicities speaks to mankind’s “I is an Other” status.
In the film’s most despicable scene, one of the boys is bound and hooded, tossed into the backseat of a car, and driven in circles while his head is nearly mashed into a bloody pulp. Worse yet, Daldry accompanies the beating with classical music—the identical aesthetic fixation that titillated Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. And symphonic violence is really all Trash has on its mind, along with troublesome directorial flourishes, like added sound effects as the victimized kids leap from one building to another during an escape or a freeze frame accompanied by a camera click during another instance of potential trauma. These could be meaningful additions were they not simply meant to obfuscate the scintillating muck Daldry and company are gleefully and thoughtlessly trudging through.